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Heart health has a gender

Being of the feminine gender increases a person’s risk of recurrent heart attacks. This is the surprising finding of a national study led by Louise Pilote, clinical researcher at the McGill University Health Centre. Medicine had already concluded that sex-related biological differences between men and women must be accounted for when assessing the symptoms and risk factors of several diseases and adapting drugs, and Louise Pilote has now made a case for adding gender—which is linked to social identity, role and status—to the list of determinants of health.

According to epidemiological research, which explores population health, the risk of suffering a heart attack is higher in men than in women. But when they followed 1,500 Canadians between the ages of 18 and 55 who had experienced a heart attack, Louise Pilote and her colleagues noted that the risk of recurrence was greater in young women. “I thought that we would identify a new predisposition gene but instead we found a link with a profile of traditionally feminine characteristics,” she explains. Indeed, men and women who are chiefly responsible for household tasks and childcare, adapt their career to their family’s needs or have typically feminine personality traits are more at risk of a second heart attack in the year following their first. Why? Louise Pilote raises the issues of greater anxiety brought about by the work-family balance and lower income, which make convalescence more difficult than for adults who identify as male.

Women in the workforce

On an entirely different note, Pilote believes that the feminine gender—and not society—stops many women from taking on executive positions or rising within the ranks of academic research. Case in point: of the 15 division directors in the Department of Medicine at McGill University, only 5 are women! Louise Pilote, who was part of this elite group for a decade, notes that women are underrepresented in most universities. “People often ask me if I’m a superwoman because I have five children and a very full career,” she laughs. “But I’m not!” Her aim is to simplify her life so her ten years of university studies can benefit society. She makes sure her children’s activities are close to home and gets outside help when she needs it. “Neither my children or my spouse love me any less for it!” she adds, convinced that there are too few professional role models for women. But women are increasingly taking on traits that are traditionally associated with the male gender (e.g. provider of household income, high salary, sharing of chores) and men are adopting more feminine roles. Louise Pilote will be keeping an eye on this gender revolution, which may have an impact on health.